The 1960s: The Birth of SNCC and the Rise of the New Left

Events in the early 1960s quickened the pace of change and finally brought the issue of civil rights to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. The civil rights movement would inspire a biracial group of activists known as the New Left. they would oppose Cold War liberalism, repudiate the old Left’s fixation with Marxism, and call for young intellectuals to be the new agents of revolutionary change.33 The rise of the New Left, with its fidelity to nonviolence, would furnish the most militant wing of the civil rights movement with the intellectual ammunition and courage to perceive the links between Jim Crow at home and imperialism abroad in the form of U.S. military aggression in Vietnam.34

The 1960s was only a few weeks old when four African American students at north Carolina agricultural and technical College in Greensboro staged a sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter and inaugurated the most turbulent decade of the twentieth century.35 Within the next two months, the student sit-in movement spread like wildfire throughout the South, and by the end of the spring semester, there had been 2,000 sit-ins. As a consequence of this ferment, veteran civil rights activist Ella Baker organized a conference of young African American student activists in April at her alma mater, Shaw College in Raleigh, North Carolina, which eventually resulted in the formation of SNCC.36 Nonviolence was the mainstay of SNCC’s ethos, and it would shape the group’s opposition to U.S. military action abroad. At the end of the conference, Baker exhorted the students to go beyond the integration of lunch counters and strive to transform the entire southern social structure.37 Baker, who had recently befriended accused communists Anne and Carl Braden, told the students that their sit-ins were part of an international struggle against injustice, and her antipathy for Red-baiting influenced SNCC’s policy of not excluding individuals or organizations with ties to communism.38 This dictum would shape SNCC’s later willingness to criticize U.S. foreign policy and revive the links between the peace and freedom movements that had been fragmented during the early years of the Cold War.39 In their struggles and travails against white dominion in the South, these activists identified with anticolonial struggles in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East and celebrated the courage of Du Bois, Robeson, and other notables who had been marginalized during the Red scare.

The sit-ins, the formation of SNCC, and a rejuvenated CORE that sponsored Freedom Rides in the spring and summer of 1961 all ignited a revolutionary grassroots movement in the South comprised predominantly of young African Americans. their courage, their willingness to get arrested, and their commitment to transforming the racial caste system in the South prompted historian and SNCC adviser Howard Zinn to gush, “For the first time in our history, a major social movement, shaking the nation to its bone, is being led by youngsters.”40 As their commitment deepened, the young SNCC activists developed an alternative perspective that differed from what they perceived to be the alienating and numbingly materialistic quality of American middle-class life. the notion of racism’s internationalism, which transcended Cold War shibboleths, was one aspect of this sensibility. Future civil rights and antiwar activists Diane Nash, James Bevel, and John Lewis arose from the Nashville wing of SNCC and came under the spell of James Lawson, a charismatic African American pacifist who had been imprisoned as a conscientious objector during the Korean War and had been influenced by Gandhi while working as a missionary in India.41 Beginning in 1959, Lawson led seminars on Gandhian practices of nonviolence for his group of young disciples and future SNCC leaders.42 As the keynote speaker at the Shaw University conference in April 1960, Lawson mesmerized the students when he characterized sit- ins as a “judgment upon the middle-class conventional, half-way efforts to deal with radical social evil.”43 The civil rights movement’s commitment to nonviolence would reestablish the ties between the peace and freedom coalitions, which would resurface as major constituencies of the New Left during the civil rights protests of the early 1960s and the subsequent antiwar movement.

As part of the New Left, the young activists in SNCC and CORE were liberated from the internal debates over Marxist dogma that had devastated the Old Left and the African American anticolonial activists of the 1930s and 1940s.44 They rejected the dominant cultural and political mores of American society; they were intent on transcending the narrow prism of Cold War America and railed against the violence inherent in the arms race.45 The nation’s fixation on communism in places like Vietnam was risible to SNCC activists, who would endure months of terror as they waged war against Jim Crow in the Deep South. As SNCC executive director and air force veteran James Forman stated, “We decided that the so-called fights of the Thirties and the Forties were not really our fights, although some tried to impose them on us.”46 Casey Hayden, a young white woman from Texas who worked with SNCC, recalled that communism was a “dead” issue. “I didn’t know any communists, only their children, who were just part of our gang.”47 While the newly inaugurated John F. Kennedy instituted a muscular foreign policy and sent a fresh crop of military advisers to Vietnam, SNCC and CoRE perceived events in Southeast Asia as remote from the real struggle for racial justice at home.

The accelerated pace of the civil rights movement of the early 1960s electrified a cohort of young white students from Berkeley to Ann Arbor to Cambridge who were struggling to articulate their grievances against the stultifying, middle-class mores of their youth. SNCC’s courageous examples of nonviolent direct-action campaigns furnished them with inspiration as they searched for their own authenticity.48 For example, twenty-year-old tom Hayden’s life was transformed when he interviewed Martin Luther King Jr. while covering the 1960 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles for the Michigan Daily. King told the young University of Michigan undergraduate, “Ultimately, you have to take a stand with your life.”49 Shortly thereafter, Hayden attended the National Student Association’s annual convention at the University of Minnesota and recalled meeting about twenty-five representatives from SNCC who “were in many ways like myself—young, politically innocent, driven by moral values, impatient with their elders, finding authentic purpose through risking their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor—in short, a genuinely revolutionary leadership.”50 Hayden called that meeting of the SNCC leaders “a key turning point, the moment my political identity began to take shape,” which spurred him to go down to Mississippi and assist with the voter registration project there.51 Historian Wesley Hogan notes that in the early 1960s, “SNCC became a magnet for northern white students” like Hayden who were “trying to do something, yet unsure how to proceed.”52

SNCC’s youthful style of grassroots activism, its fidelity to nonviolence, and its policy of not excluding alleged communists or fellow travelers provided a template for Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which Hayden helped form. Within a few years, SDS became the most influential New Left organization of the 1960s, and it was the first organization to mobilize Americans against the Vietnam War. SDS hosted a conference on “Human Rights in the North” on May 5-7, 1960, at the University of Michigan. A number of civil rights leaders—Bayard Rustin, James Farmer from CORE, and Herbert Hill from the NAACP—attended the conference, which solidified SDS’s ties to the civil rights community. For the next two years, SDS continued to speak out on behalf of civil rights. By December 1961, hoping to create a mass movement, SDS decided that it needed to articulate its values and political objectives in a manifesto that would encapsulate the goals of a new generation of activists. The task of crafting that manifesto fell to Hayden.53

In the fall of 1961, Hayden had moved to Atlanta to become SDS’s field secretary in the South, and his experiences on the front lines of the civil rights movement totally changed his life.54 on october 9, 1961, Hayden and Paul Potter, a white student and future SDS chief from Ober- lin College, arrived in McComb, Mississippi, to publicize the vigilante violence that was imperiling SNCC’s voter registration drive there. less than forty-eight hours later, two assailants dragged them from their vehicle and nearly clubbed them to death. a photographer from the associated Press snapped a picture of a helpless and bloody Hayden cowering on the ground, and it was splashed across the wires, contributing to his growing fame among the New left.55 Hayden’s harrowing experience in Mississippi did not deter him from participating in SNCC’s ongoing campaign in Albany, Georgia, where he was jailed a few months later for trying to integrate a railroad terminal.56 While imprisoned in Albany on December 11, 1961, his twenty-second birthday, Hayden wrote a dramatic letter to his SDS colleagues “on a smuggled piece of paper with [a] smuggled pen.” From his cell, “which is perhaps seven feet high and no more than ten feet long,” he wrote of the need for “SDS to become a national organization, a counterpart to SNCC in the rest of the country.”57 It was against the backdrop of his searing experiences in the Deep South that Hayden began to formulate the intellectual blueprint for the SDS manifesto that would be known as the Port Huron Statement.

On June 12, 1962, fifty-nine activists, mostly students, attended a conference in Port Huron, Michigan. There, they agreed to ratify Hayden’s manifesto, which became the anthem for the New Left.58 SNCC and the civil rights movement shaped Hayden’s views of domestic and international affairs. Taking its cue from SNCC’s style of grassroots activism and nonviolence, the Port Huron Statement touted the virtues of “participatory democracy” and called on individuals to take part in the fundamental decisions affecting their lives. Similarly, it mirrored SNCC’s critique of the single-minded obsession with the purported communist menace when segregation made a mockery of American ideals of freedom and liberty. Hayden strove to transcend the stale typologies of mid-twentieth-century American political dialogue. He indicted U.S. foreign policy for continuing the Cold War and for hypocritically supporting some of the most ruthless despots, such as Diem in South Vietnam, in the name of preserving democracy. Hayden was no less charitable to the Soviet Union, which, he argued, was “becoming a conservative status quo nation-state.” Like the Bandung Conference, Port Huron sought an alternative to the suffocating debates between capitalism and communism that obscured the glaring paradox of Jim Crow in the South. With respect to the Third World revolutions raging in Vietnam and throughout much of Africa in the wake of decolonization, the statement called for the United States to provide sustenance and “critical support” and not to moralize. In words that presaged the New left’s opposition to the Vietnam War, Hayden argued that the cause of democracy would be enhanced by working to keep such revolutions independent, rather than viewing them through the narrow prism of Cold War competition. Implicit in the Port Huron Statement was an antianticommunism, reminiscent of SNCC’s view that communism was irrelevant. In the years prior to escalation of the Vietnam War, SNCC’s and SDS’s shared sensibilities on racial issues and foreign policy opened up the possibility of an interracial coalition of young people oriented toward peace and racial justice.59

Early on, SNCC members and their white counterparts in the New Left chafed at the Kennedy administration’s torpor on civil rights and its bellicose Cold War rhetoric.60 Kennedy’s reservations about alienating the powerful southern bloc in Congress caused him to renege on his campaign promise to end racial discrimination in federal housing with a “stroke of the pen.”61 Harris Wofford, Kennedy’s adviser on civil rights, recalled that the president’s primary concern about racial segregation was its effect on America’s image abroad, especially the potential fallout from any mistreatment of African diplomats stationed in Washington, D.C.62 Nonviolent direct action was anathema to most members of Kennedy’s inner circle. As a result, the Kennedy administration was instrumental in creating the Voter Education Project (VEP), intended to get SNCC activists off the streets and channel their energies toward voter registration. This created divisions within SNCC because it received less funding than other civil rights organizations, and many members perceived this as a self-interested policy designed to weaken civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action.63

In addition, much to the chagrin of civil rights leaders, Kennedy, an aggressive cold warrior, was preoccupied with the Soviet Union and the tensions in Cuba, Berlin, and especially Vietnam, which was becoming a focal point in the struggle between the superpowers. The Freedom Rides coincided with JFK’s first European summit, where he was anticipating a tense meeting with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev.64 Kennedy’s first instinct was to pressure the Freedom Riders to cancel their protests out of fear of handing Khrushchev a public relations victory.65 Although the Kennedy administration dispatched U.S. marshals to the University of Mississippi and the University of Alabama, proposed a voter registration campaign, and was more welcoming to African Americans, it was not until the spring of 1963, when Birmingham authorities’ brutal tactics against protesters ignited a public outrage, that the Kennedy administration gave civil rights a higher priority. Robert Kennedy later conceded, “I did not lie awake at night worrying about the problems of Negroes.”66 The president’s statements on civil rights were tempered with caution, lest he roil the segregationist wing of the Democratic Party and upset his upcoming reelection campaign. In particular, Kennedy castigated SNCC and referred to members as “sons of a bitches” who “had an investment in violence.”67 Throughout his short tenure, Kennedy frequently chided both sides for their extremism. Historian Nick Bryant rebuked Kennedy for being a bystander on civil rights and stated that his policy of inaction “unintentionally set in motion a chain reaction that had a radicalizing effect” on southern extremists and agitators.68 For all these reasons, there was animosity between SNCC and CORE and the Kennedy administration. Nothing dramatized this bitterness more than a tumultuous meeting between Robert Kennedy and civil rights activists, arranged by novelist James Baldwin, in the aftermath of Birmingham in May 1963. There, a Freedom Rider from CoRE shocked the attorney general by saying he could never imagine fighting for the United States.69

Kennedy’s temporizing on civil rights notwithstanding, the early 1960s was a groundbreaking era in the African American freedom struggle. The wellspring of change was not the highest office in the land but the high-profile grassroots campaigns engineered by SNCC, CORE, and SCLC in the streets, parks, beaches, bus terminals, and lunch counters of some of the most benighted hamlets and cities in the Deep South. Particularly noteworthy was 1963, a year that witnessed an array of iconic events and images that captured the imagination of the national and international public. In the spring, the campaign to end segregation in Birmingham led to a public relations coup for the civil rights movement when the media disseminated disturbing images of vicious dogs attacking defenseless African American children and southern policemen clubbing and turning high-pressure fire hoses on innocent bystanders.70 A few months later, on August 28, 1963, the March on Washington confounded its skeptics by its peaceful and rarefied nature, culminating in King’s majestic “I Have a Dream” speech. The public success of the March of Washington belied the internal controversy over the censorship of John Lewis’s proposed speech, wherein he castigated the Kennedy administration and the Democratic Party for their sluggishness on the issue of racial justice.71 The ebullient mood was broken only a few weeks later when a bomb exploded at the Seventeenth Street Church in Birmingham, killing four young girls. Most important, though, this grassroots activism catapulted civil rights to the forefront of the nation’s agenda, forcing Americans to recognize the imperative of rectifying the country’s original sin: slavery. It would retain its status as America’s most pressing issue for the next two years, until a secret war simmering in distant Indochina erupted into a conflagration and consumed most of the nation’s energy, zeal, and resources for the next decade.

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